Last Thursday, after nearly eight years of detention three journalists were among a group released from a prison near Istanbul. The journalists Füsün Erdoğan, Bayram Namaz and Arif Çelebi were arrested in 2006 and accused of belonging to the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP), which is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey. For journalists and activists who had been closely following the case, the sudden release came as a surprise after months of resistance from local courts.
In November 2013, seven years after her arrest, Erdoğan was sentenced to life in prison for her alleged involvement with the MLKP. She has denied involvement with the group. In a letter Erdoğan wrote that was published by the CPJ last year, she explicitly rejected the charges: “In reality, there was only one real reason for our arrest: police were trying to intimidate members of the progressive, independent, democratic, and alternative media.” Erdoğan is a founder of the leftist radio station Özgür Radyo and began writing for the independent news website Bianet while in prison, mailing editors her regular dispatches, says Elif Akgül, Bianet’s freedom of speech editor.
Earlier this year, judicial reforms in Turkey brought down the maximum legal detention time for prisoners awaiting sentencing in terrorism cases from ten years to five. While Erdoğan had been sentenced in local court, she is still awaiting a verdict from an appeals judge. Following the new reform, Erdoğan’s lawyers applied for her release from prison, but the request was denied in March. Around the same time, eight journalists were released who had been detained in 2011 and were accused of belonging to the Kurdish KCK union, which is also considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey.
The turnarounds over the past months, from Erdoğan’s life prison sentence last year to her release from prison a few days ago, have exposed the Turkish judicial system’s capacity for dragging on a case in uncertainty. Erdoğan was not informed of the charges against her until two years into her detention, and served nearly eight years without receiving a final verdict. Now, after Erdoğan’s sudden and unexpected release from prison, the court’s decision also shows the opacity of court regulations in Turkey. The implications of a broken judicial system for press freedom are troubling—especially in a country with consistently high numbers of jailed journalists.
Füsün Erdoğan’s case has attracted the attention of advocacy organizations like the Turkish Journalists’ Union, the European Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders. Because she’s a Turkish-Dutch dual citizen, last year the Dutch Association of Journalists (NVJ) also began campaigning for her release.
Thomas Bruning is general secretary of the NVJ and has started campaigns in the Netherlands to bring attention to Erdoğan’s case. What drew the most reactions, he says, was when the NVJ had 10,000 posters made featuring a picture of Erdoğan with the text “Füsün Erdoğan must be free” and “journalists are not terrorists” in Dutch. The association sent the posters out to subscribers of their magazine and asked them to share pictures of the posters on social media. Over the last few months, Bruning and the NVJ have also been in contact with Erdoğan’s son, and Bruning gave a speech outside the Dutch parliament when Erdoğan’s son went on a hunger strike there to draw attention to his mother’s case. Now that Erdoğan is out of prison, the NVJ is focused on having the charges against her dropped. “We always said that there are two problems left – one is that, although in the last few months journalists have been released, there are still a lot of journalists in prison in Turkey. The second is that Füsün is released but the charges haven’t been dropped yet. She’s not free to travel and she’s awaiting the appeal. She’s not a free citizen,” Bruning said.
Füsün Erdoğan’s surprise release from prison is not an indicator of lasting change in Turkey’s press freedom situation. During its 2013 prison census, the CPJ reported that 40 journalists were in Turkish prisons. Yesterday, five more journalists were released from prison who had been held in connection to the KCK case. Despite the release of multiple journalists this year, the CPJ estimates that at least 11 journalists are still imprisoned in Turkey.
At protests in Istanbul on May 1, journalists were detained and Bianet reported that at least 12 were injured. A few weeks ago, the journalist Önder Aytaç was sentenced to ten years in prison for a 2012 tweet that insulted Prime Minister Erdoğan. Akgül says freedom of speech is evolving but not improving in Turkey. “In the 1990s, you were killed for being a journalist, in the 2000s you were arrested for being a journalist. Right now, you become unemployed if you’re a journalist,” she said.
Erdoğan’s legal situation remains precarious as she awaits appeal trial, but while Akgül says her release is a positive development, the case is a warning sign for the media climate in Turkey. “It’s a threat not just for the journalists who are on trial, it’s a threat for the others too,” said Akgül. “Because a journalist now working in Turkey, writing critical stuff, knows they can be jailed for being a terrorist member, administrator, member, they can be jailed for lifetimes.”